Elizabeth Hardwick writes about fiction that treats with the problems of being a woman

Someone once told me not to begin promoting your novel until, at the earliest, six months before its release date, because otherwise any hype you build will peak too soon. I have no idea whether this is true, but it’s a good enough reason to not write too much about my book. It’s out there, going to bloggers through Edelweiss and NetGalley, and it’s accruing blurbs from other writers as well. Response has been gratifying! By this time, a few weeks, after the public release of the ARCs of my first book, ENTER TITLE HERE, it’d already accumulated some extremely negative responses, which this one hasn’t yet done.

I am very pleased with the book. Mostly I’m just pleased that I took the time to completely rewrite it late last year and early this year even when I didn’t have to. I didn’t entirely think it’d make a difference in the book’s reception, but it clearly, to me, wasn’t where it needed to be, and now it is.

Anyway, I haven’t been blogging as much lately! This is the new book’s fault again. I’ve been trying to reach new audiences, which has led me back onto Twitter. I’ve been pondering Medium, but I’m not certain it’s entirely right for me. I dunno. Instagram is where you’re supposed to go, but I’ve no visual eye.

Reading-wise, I’ve been having a good month. The book I’d recommend most highly is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Beauty and Seduction, which I found through the simple expedient of checking out ten more or less randomly selected NYRB classics from an online library. This wasn’t even the first of those books that I’ve read. I also read Boredom, by Alberto Moravia (which was a bit tedious, to be honest), and Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens, which was an intense and fascinating psychological thriller about the relationship between a Greek family and the Nazi officer who’s been forcibly domiciled with them.

Seduction and Betrayal is an essay collection! It contains individual essays on the Bronte Sisters, on Sylvia Plath, on the Bloomsbury Group, on the plays of Ibsen, and on the concept of seduction and betrayal in fiction. The book is loosely organized around the theme of, “Who are the authors who’ve said something interesting in fiction about what it means to be a woman?” In this Hardwick doesn’t mean, “Who has written great female characters.” In some cases, having great characters gets in the way of what she’s talking about. She wants to know what authors have treated sort of the essence of womanhood and woman’s place in the world. And each essay in its own way gets at those ideas.

I’m finding it hard to quantify what was so striking about the collection. I think it was the gentleness with which Hardwick treats many of these women and many of these characters. For instance, in an essay on amateurs—women known for their proximity to literary greats—she writes about Wordsworth’s sister, and how she achieved greatness in one of the only ways available to her, which was to subsume her life to her brother’s genius. In her essay on seduction and betrayal, she writes about how desire, how the momentary weakening of the senses, the thing that causes a woman to give in to seduction, is a great engine for fiction. She talks about how various women have been written about when it comes to desire. She compares the saintliness of Hester Prynne. She talks about Clarissa Harlowe, who wasn’t seduced (she was raped), but who also in some ways seems to be flirting with oblivion in how she deals with Lovelace. She writes about Hetty, in Adam Bede, who seems vain and not-thoroughly-good, but who doesn’t deserve the punishment she gets. Hardwick knows, obviously, that it’s wrong for the world to punish women in this way, but she’s not concerned with the world, she’s concerned with how fiction treats the problems of womanhood, and this is a very particular problem: men can have sex without biological repercussion, whereas women risk pregnancy. And how does this problem become a vehicle for fiction?

Similarly, in her essay on the Brontes, she engages in a bit of bio-crit, talking about how the sisters were almost driven into seeking literary success because of the poor range of choices available to them at the time. They couldn’t bear to be governesses, and they didn’t want to marry poorly. She writes about how Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre represent very different solutions to this same problem. (As as sidenote, I wish she’d included poor Anne! I still think she’s my favorite of the sisters, and I’m not saying that just to be contrary. I prefer the realist to the romantic, I’m sorry…)

I liked the essay on Ibsen the most, because I hadn’t read anything of his, hadn’t even really heard much about him before. But she writes about Ibsen’s characters—about his women who are driven to make something of their lives—and about the various paths they take, and the tragedies that befall them.

It’s a short book, maybe 300 pages, and definitely worth your time! NYRB classics 4eva

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